Orwell’s dystopian novel imagines the ‘worst of all possible worlds’, where all the social, political and religious institutions have broken down as a result of never-ending war, leaving the population oppressed by the ‘government’ (the ‘PARTY’) and under its constant surveillance. The story takes place in Oceania which is a super state consisting of Great Britain, the Americas, Australia and many more countries, all under the control of the Party. The main character Winston Smith feels the need to rebel against the Party by writing his thoughts in a book, which is a ‘thought crime’ and by being in a forbidden relationship with a woman named Julia.
One compelling aspect of the novel is how ‘crime’ and thus, ‘law’ are perceived. First, law does not exist at all in totalitarian Oceania. Nothing can be illegal as laws do not exist anymore. Yet, if Winston is caught writing his thoughts down in his diary, he could be executed or given 25 years of forced labour. The Thought Police has unlimited power to enforce the Party’s views and ideologies and if anything goes against these ideologies or is not in line with the Party’s views, they are classed as illegal.
Now, this makes us question the popular belief that law always has a single and coherent body. For this, I draw upon the question raised in the LW927 Law and Humanities module at the University of Kent of whether “the idea of a coherent body for law still work towards the delivery of justice”. Some might find it hard to relate this question to Orwell’s novel but the key to this lies in the interpretation of the text.
Dystopia is often the product of a fear for the future following actual or past events and to be able to warn people effectively, the scenarios depicted are often the worst possible ones. So, every aspect described in the text is quite extreme but is a fair representation of what is really going on in the actual world. Firstly, the fact that ‘no laws’ exist is an absurd idea; the ‘coherence’ factor in ‘coherent body’ is hence, already thrown out of the water. However, despite this claim, Winston can still be punished if he commits thought crime and eventually the premise that there is no legal body or system is trumped by the fact that there are some things considered ‘illegal’. So, law whether written or unwritten, coherent or not, does exist in Oceania and has existed in any other totalitarian regimes in the past(or present even?) in the real world. The people are still being regulated and oppressed by a certain set of beliefs, ideologies and even ‘rules’. The story goes further as the Party tries to control the population’s behaviour by inventing ‘Newspeak’ a new language where the main tactic is to limit words to restrict independent thoughts and this ‘dumbing down’ will make disobedience unthinkable and the State (the Party) will have absolute power. Is this kind of regulation there to deliver justice? It is very much unlikely.
So, if we take the dystopian and totalitarian factors out of the picture for a moment, we realise that law is always based on a ‘body’ that gives it its power and authority. Whether that body is coherent or ethical, is a completely different question. Wherever this power derives its legitimacy and whether it is morally acceptable, is also a different question.At the end of the day,can this absolute power of the Party in Orwell’s Oceania be considered as a metaphor to the facts of the famous MABO case?